Beth Fischer: The Story of a Woman with Terminal Brain Cancer

I’ve been wanting to share this story for a while now, but to be honest I wasn’t sure I could tell it properly. I wanted to do this story justice, and I haven’t had the confidence to share such an emotional part of my travel experience.

I’ve made it a goal these last few months to open up more, and share my personal experiences and feelings, because I’m a real person and not a traveling robot on happy pills. My first big step was sharing the story of how I left behind my boyfriend for a life of travel. It took me a long time to find the courage to publish that post.

But this story isn’t all about me, it’s about Beth Fischer, a reader who reached out to me for a favor. 

Before we start, I would like to disclose that I received permission from Beth to share her story. 

travel and guilt: the story of a woman with terminal brain cancer

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An message from a Reader

A year and a half ago, my blog wasn’t pretty. This was long before I made the transition to a real, self-hosted travel blog. I had a basic, ugly, free wordpress blog that I had been using to write stories about my study abroad experience in China, and my preparations for teaching abroad. I didn’t have many readers, and I certainly wasn’t getting contacted by any of them.

One day out of the blue I received a comment on one of my posts from a woman named Beth Fischer. She had come across a post about my upcoming trip to Tibet, and wanted to ask me for a favor.

“Hi Richelle, I came across your blog while googling the GuiLin Mts for a painting. I’ve always wanted to travel to China – since I was a little girl growing up in Ohio. ( I even took Chinese in my early 20’s – i’m now 58) I now live 1 hr south of you in Olympia. As I am living with stage4 cancer (now to the brain-yikes!) I won’t be going to China.  So I take refuge in your going and exploring this amazing culture. As a long time student of Buddhism, going to Tibet would be a highlight for me.  May I make a bold request?(for healing) if it feels right to you, could you leave my name at some shrine you visit along your journey?”

I was shocked. I felt so honored to receive such an important request. I even teared up as I read the comment. Of all people for her to reach out to… me, a study abroad blogger with a crappy free wordpress blog and almost no following. People like me don’t get requests like that. Girls like me don’t get to grant people’s wishes.

Before Beth reached out to me, I had been considering abandoning my trip to Tibet. Planning a trek in Tibet is very difficult and expensive. You have to find a tour that won’t break the bank, buy overpriced train tickets off the black market, prepare your body for the altitude, and apply for special visas and permits. But after I received the comment from Beth, I knew I had to make the trip work no matter what.

prayer flags tibet

Getting accosted by children selling prayer flags

Prayer Flags

Fast forward a few months later, and I’m driving through the mountains of Tibet. I knew I had to do something special for Beth, but I wasn’t quite sure where to leave her name. As we were winding our way through the mountains, listening to Tibetan music on full-blast, we saw a few men hanging prayer flags. As we neared the pass, we noticed that it was absolutely covered in colorful strands of flags. Our guide, a practicing Tibetan Buddhist, explained that if you write a person’s name on a set of prayer flags, it acts as a prayer for the health and wellbeing of that person. The higher up in altitude the flags, the stronger the prayer.

I immediately knew that hanging a strand of prayer flags was the perfect way to honor Beth in Tibet.

As we stopped the car at the Yamdrok Tso Pass on Turquoise Lake, our car was swarmed with children trying to sell us flags. I purchased one to leave at the Turquoise Lake, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life, and another set to leave at Gyatso, the highest pass we would encounter on our trip.

Hanging flags at Yamdrok Tso

Hanging flags at Yamdrok Tso

Hanging Flags at Yamdrok Tso

While at Yamdrok Tso, my friends and I hiked out to a far peak that was covered in prayer flags. The hike was a bit dangerous. One misstep and I could easily fall to my death, which I almost did at one point. When we finally made it to the rock, I borrowed a sharpie to write Beth’s name, and hung her flags so that they overlooked the most beautiful view.

As I was tying the flags, a wave of emotions washed over me. I felt a bit entitled and privileged, for having the health and ability to embark on such an amazing trip, while Beth was at home struggling with terminal cancer. I also felt so incredibly thankful and appreciative that I have the ability to leave my home country, when so many people can’t. What makes me so special?

Finally I felt honored. Honored that Beth asked me of all people to complete such a special task for her. I just really wished Beth could have been there to see it.

Gyatso Pass Tibet

Hanging flags at Gyatso Pass- over 17,000ft

Contacting Beth

After I left Tibet, I compiled all of the best pictures together and emailed them to Beth. I sent her a lengthy email explaining the reasoning behind the prayer flags, and describing in detail where I hung them. I checked my email every day, and after a few weeks I began to get worried. Was I too late? Had she passed away?

Eventually a month later I heard back from her. She had been experiencing seizures and was in and out of the hospital. She told me she had made the photo of me tying her prayer flags in Yamdrok Tso her computer’s desktop picture. I can’t even begin to describe the emotions I felt when I received her email. I was thankful that she was still alive, and so honored that she would use my photo as her desktop background.

Turquoise Lake prayer flags Tibet

Beth’s desktop background

Losing Touch

I exchanged a few more emails back and forth with Beth, but eventually we fell out of touch. I was starting work as a high school teacher in rural China, and things weren’t going very well for me. I was lonely and depressed, isolated from everyone and I had no friends. It was not the experience I had signed up for, and I felt manipulated and lied to by my company.

It wasn’t until a few months later that I realized I hadn’t spoken with Beth in a while. I logged onto my email and realized I had left her last email unanswered. I shot her a quick reply, but I never heard back. I was so busy teaching English and dealing with my own personal problems, I completely forgot about it.

Prayer Flags Tibet

A Chilling Realization

About a month ago I was asked in an interview about my most meaningful travel moment. Immediately the story of hanging prayer flags for Beth sprung to mind. It had been so long since I’d even thought about it!

After the interview I realized I had never heard back from her after the last email I sent her. I knew something was wrong. I noticed in one of the emails she had sent me a link to her husband’s blog, where he wrote about the process of losing her. I opened the blog and the first post is a poem titled “The Widdower’s Walk”. Beth had passed away. Beth had died, and I had been too busy dealing with my own petty problems to even notice.

I scrolled down further and realized she passed away on December 6th, a few weeks before I responded to her email. I had let her email sit unanswered in my inbox for two months. While I was sitting around feeling sorry for myself, Beth was dying. I was too selfish to make time to respond to her email, and by the time I realized, it was too late.

I still feel like a horrible person.

Gyatso Pass prayer flags

Looking to the Future

Beth is an amazing artist. While Beth couldn’t travel to Tibet, she painted two beautiful acrylics of a Tibetan monastery in Northern India. She also has many other beautiful paintings of animals, flowers, Buddha and more. This one is my favorite.

I’ve realized I can’t go back in time and become less selfish. I can’t rewind the clock and send her that email a month earlier. There’s nothing I can do about either of those things now. I can sit around hating myself all day, but it’s not going to change anything.

But what I can do is share her beautiful artwork and incredible story with you.

My hope is that you leave this post with a newfound resolve to live life to the fullest. You never know how much time you have left on this earth with those you care for. Let’s make a pact to stop putting things off. Whether it’s responding to an email, starting a business or planning a round-the-world trip. Don’t wait an extra day to tell someone you love and appreciate them. Stop putting travel off until you “have more money”. Life is short, so let’s live it without regrets.

-Richelle

Comments

comments

About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

60 comments on “Beth Fischer: The Story of a Woman with Terminal Brain Cancer

    • Hi Richelle,

      Thank you for this amazing story, and a huge thank you for your incredible blog. I’m now backpacking China after I quit my job, because I realized life is too short not to follow your dreams. All of your advice has been so helpful! I came across this story when I was looking up information on Tibet since I plan to head there soon.

  1. Wow! just wow. What an amazing story. It clearly meant so much to her that her name was flying high in Tibet. I can’t imagine a more powerful travel story than that.

  2. This is a very touching and incredible story, thanks for sharing it with us all and for doing something so special for Beth :)

  3. Oh goodness, that is a such a great story. I really don’t spend enough thinking about how blessed I am to be able to travel. That’s amazing that you were able to help find a way to Tibet after all. Its nice to think those flags are still catching the wind somewhere beautiful.

    • Yeah I spend so much time trying to convince other people that I’m not rich and anyone can travel, especially if you work abroad and teach English. But the reality is that not everyone can.

  4. This gave me the chills. What a moving story! I am so glad you shared this. It goes to show how we all truly can make our mark on this world, no matter how small and insignificant it may seem at times.

  5. That is a great story, don’t be too down on yourself, you granted someone wish, went above and beyond for her wish. It’s sounds like the both of you were impacted/inspired by each other’s stories.

    Live your dreams and not dream to live…

  6. This story is absolutely beautiful! I love hearing about other people’s travels, because it’s going to be a long time before I do any of that. Thank you so much for posting!

  7. This post was absolutely heart warming. It made me cry. I admire you for what you did for Beth. Some bloggers just overlook their comments and do not realize that some readers are really trying to create a real connection. You probably made more of an impact on her life than you realize and she chose you for a reason. Don’t be too hard on yourself. We all get caught up in our everyday lives and you can’t guilt yourself on that. Thank you for sharing this with all of us. It definitely puts many things in perspective for me. Live each day as if it were your last!

    • Thanks Jessica! I am very glad she reached out to me. Not only did she make my trip to Tibet more meaningful, she also taught me how much of an impact blogging can actually make. She inspired me to keep writing and working on my blog

  8. What an incredible story! I hope that I will be able to do something wonderful for someone through my travels at some point. Beth knew that you did these wonderful things for her–and that’s what you should be proud of. The prayer flags and the journey to Tibet were obviously important to her, and you made that happen!

  9. I teared up reading this post, what a beautiful yet saddening experience you had but you made Beth happy by fulfilling her request and you should be so proud of that. Your pictures are absolutely beautiful and imagine the joy Beth felt having that picture as her desktop image, a picture of you doing something for her. Those flags were beautiful, a great way to commemorate her bright, artist spirit. I’ve just taken a look at her artwork and they’re full of colour so you chose well for her. She looked like such a lovely lady and I’m sure she’s greatly missed. Thank you for sharing this beautiful yet heartbreaking story. You fulfilled Beth request and you should forever hold that in your heart <3

    • Thank you so much for all your kind words! I agree, her artwork definitely reflects her spirit. Even in the face of such a horrible illness she was always so positive and optimistic. She’s definitely an inspiring person, and I’m so glad I got the chance to get to know her a little

  10. Ugh I am so sorry. I teared up reading your post. We take so many things for granted in this life, when the reality is we are not guaranteed another day. I can’t imagine walking that walk that Beth’s husband is walking. Try not to be hard on yourself. What you were doing although different is very hard too.

    • Thanks Dina :) I know it must be so devastating for her husband. He seems to be healing well though. He’s holding an art sale in Seattle to mark the anniversary of her passing,

  11. Oh man.. My heart goes out to you! It is always important that you should value all of your loved ones, very dearly. Try to relax a little bit and not be so hard on yourself. May the best lie in your future.

  12. This is such a wonderful and inspiring read – it was sad but still, it is totally worth it. You have such wonderful soul most people won’t even bother at all, if you know what I mean. I wonder if I would get a chance to be helpful like that to someone as well.

    • I would like to think that most people would love an opportunity like that, but you never know. I think that’s one of the most amazing things about being a blogger- the chance to reach out to your readers and share your story.

  13. I’m glad you wrote this and you were able to open up. I think we all have problems however petty and small we might think they are.. but they are our own problems.. I don’t think that makes them any less important than someone else’s even though fighting terminal cancer is a big deal. I think often I beat myself up about not being available enough to help people and the needs are many.. but all of us do what we can. I’m glad that you feel challenged though and that you were able to travel to Tibet on her behalf and hang a prayer flag there.

    • That’s a great point. We all go through things in life, no matter how big or small. I am definitely glad that I got to at least go to Tibet to leave her name there.

  14. I do not think you are a horrible person I think you are such an amazing person for even agreeing to go to Tibet and hang her flag and inform her about the trip and I believe that’s all she ever requested nothing more. Yes would have been nice to stay in touch when possible but in your case it was not always possible, be thank you you had such a moment and connection with her and probably granted her her dying wish which I think is very honourable of you.

  15. Richelle this is an incredible story. Don’t be hard on yourself as we are all on our different paths. It is beautiful that yours and Beth’s happened to cross, and that you helped her along her’s for a short while. Thank you so much for sharing this tale!

  16. This is an amazing yet sad story. It is very touching and even brought tears to my eyes. You helped out in the ways that you could which is what counts the most at the end of the day.

    • Thanks Jocelyn! I’m glad you enjoyed the story. You should definitely try to plan a Trip to Tibet if you can. The political situation is constantly changing and there’s no way to know how long it will be open to foreign visitors

  17. Such a touching story. I’m sure she’s able to rest in peace knowing that her prayer flags are high up on a beautiful spot in Tibet. It’s amazing that you put them up there for her. Sharing how bad you feel about forgetting to reply to her email is very brave of you. We’re all human and can’t turn back time.

    • Thanks Ruth :) I was very nervous about sharing that part, but I think it’s important to let everyone know I’m not some perfect benevolent person that goes around fulfilling everyone’s wishes

  18. This is a very touching and thoughtful post, Richelle, I shared it on Twitter and on my Facebook Page.You have fulfilled one of Beth’ greatest wishes and hung the prayer flags for Beth on one of the most beautiful and powerful places on Earth, so you shouldn’t feel bad although I can totally understand your feelings.

    You are perfectly right: Life is short, so we should really stop putting things off. Thank you so much for sharing.

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